San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons
In the 49ers win over the Green Bay Packers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick set an NFL record with 181 rushing yards (and two touchdowns) as the 49ers amassed over 500 yards of offense. Kaepernick was able to shake off an early pick-six by Sam Shields, and had perhaps had the best postseason debut by a quarterback in NFL history, adding 263 yards and two touchdowns through the air to his tremendous rushing performance.
The defense for the 49ers wasn't always spectacular, but the team did a great job of limiting Aaron Rodgers' opportunities for big plays. Justin Smith was productive in the game, though there were still times when the triceps injury was evident.
Atlanta was able to get the monkey off their back, though it didn't come easy for the Falcons, who blew a 27-7 fourth quarter lead only to come back with a game-winning field goal drive in the game's final 31 seconds. Matt Ryan made two big completions, which led to Matt Bryant's game winner, including a 19-yarder to Tony Gonzalez with just 14 seconds remaining to get them in range.
Perhaps the two most impressive aspects of the Falcons win were the fact that they were able to rack up 167 rushing yards against a strong Seattle run defense, and also limited the Seahawks running game to 123 yards on 28 carries. Atlanta had been vulnerable against the run game at times this season, and also struggled to get a consistent running game going. Neither were evident in the victory, as Jacquizz Rodgers set the tone early with a 45-yard run that saw 'Quizz' run over Seattle's All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
If the Falcons are able to contain the running game of San Francisco, there stands a very good chance Atlanta reaches the Super Bowl. I'm just not sure their defensive line (which includes a banged-up John Abraham) can stand up to the 49ers power running attack.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Falcons 20.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
The Ravens got a big play when they needed it most, as wide receiver Jacoby Jones was able to haul in a Joe Flacco bomb into double coverage, and took it the rest of the way for a 70-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds left to tie the game. The Ravens have found much better offensive balance since Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron as the team's offensive coordinator, and the team actually ran the ball 39 times against just 34 pass attempts. As those who have read my blog know, I've been asking the Ravens to do a better job of utilizing Ray Rice for some time now, and the team has looked better since doing so.
On defense, the team was able to keep Peyton Manning off-balance almost the entire game, as they were able to force Manning into three turnovers, including a first quarter pick that was returned by Corey Graham for a touchdown. Of the three turnovers, none was more costly than the across-body pass that was intercepted by Pernell McPhee in the second overtime, leading to Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal.
The Patriots were able to beat the Texans last week, but have lost Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season due to a re-injured forearm. Tom Brady did everything we've become accustomed to over the past decade-plus, throwing for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns, while the running game was strong in limited work (24 rushes, 122 yards. After Gronkowski was hurt early, Brady made good use of his running backs in the passing game, as Shane Vereen emerged as a valuable weapon, totaling 5 catches, 83 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the team was able to keep the Texans' running game in check, which led to Houston's poor 4-15 performance on third downs. While Matt Schaub was able to throw for 343 yards and two touchdowns, both of his TD passes and a lot of those yards came after the result of the game was pretty much determined.
The Patriots are rightfully the favorites, but Baltimore always gives Tom Brady and New England a hard-fought game. If Baltimore can control the clock and put pressure on Brady the way they did against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, then Baltimore could advance.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 24.